China food safety

New court-approved guidelines can boost consumer rights in China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 3:57am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 4:49pm

Food and drug-safety scandals on the mainland underline the vulnerability of consumers to unscrupulous manufacturers and retailers. There have been some appalling and tragic examples, but in the absence of effective legal avenues to sue for meaningful damages, the victims tend to cut helpless figures, dependent on arbitrary amounts of monetary compensation from the authorities. That could be about to change under new guidelines issued by a civil division of the Supreme People's Court on how to handle disputes over food, drugs, cosmetics and dietary supplements.

The guidelines emphasise protection of consumer rights and encourage the public to seek legal redress. When they come into effect - on March 15, World Consumer Rights Day - consumers will have the backing of the courts not only to sue manufacturers of unsafe food and pharmaceutical products, but also the retailers. That is not to say they have not tried to stand up for their rights in the past. Between 2010 and 2012, the courts handled more than 13,000 civil cases involving food and drugs, which accounted for 6 per cent of civil rights cases.

But few actually sued for compensation because, without punitive damages, the amounts involved did not justify the extra effort in going to court. The new guidelines provide that consumers can sue manufacturers who make substandard products - and retailers who sell them knowing them to be shoddy - for 10 times the price of the individual product. To be sure, this is an incremental advance in consumer rights rather than a revolutionary one. But it is a step in the right direction. Unlike in the United States and other Western jurisdictions, mainland judges are reluctant to award damages. That, too, could change under improvements to the civil law.

It was the scandal more than five years ago over melamine-tainted milk formula that gave momentum to this reform. It is to be hoped it will be applied even-handedly, and not targeted at foreign firms, and that it will not be another five or six years before judges are empowered to award meaningful damages.